Robert Plant knows what the fans want.
They want Led Zeppelin.
This time through town, the British rock legend was willing to oblige them. Plant got the Led out early and often on Saturday night at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, opening with "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" and then going on to devote roughly half of his 90-minute-plus show to Zeppelin tunes.
Unfortunately, they didn't sound like we remembered them — and if you were expecting that they would then you probably haven't been paying all that much attention to Plant's post-Zeppelin solo career, which began with 1982's "Pictures at Eleven."
Having ignored his old band's songbook for more than a decade, Plant finally began to reclaim his legacy onstage in the mid-'90s. Yet, he's gone about doing it in his own peculiar way, especially in recent years. He's softened the arrangements on many of the Led Zep classics, perhaps in order to make them more palpable for those who caught on to him through 2007's folksy collaboration with Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand."
In Berkeley, some of the re-imagined Zep tunes worked quite well -- usually the ones that, in their original incarnations, were really just folk songs given a metal turbo boost. In that regard, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" (a tune first made famous by Joan Baez in the early '60s) and "Going to California" (perhaps Led Zep's best power ballad) were both highlights of the show.
Other reworked classics came across as mere oddities, seldom conveying the passion and power of the originals. Indeed, there were times when Plant would run a Led Zep tune through the America/world music blender and the result would be something ripe for a "Saturday Night Live" skit. The worst was "Black Dog," a once magnetic number that was juiced up with West African rhythms to the point where it sounded like an outtake from Paul Simon's "Graceland" sessions.
As expected, the Led Zep covers -- regardless of their strength -- drew some of the biggest responses from the crowd. Fans would clap and cheer whenever they recognized a melody or riff, which -- due to the arrangements -- often took a few moments.
Plant sounded great throughout the night, occasionally even reaching his "golden god" heights of the '70s. His band, dubbed the Sensational Space Shifters, is also terrific and quite agile, convincingly following Plant through folk, blues, rock and other musical terrain.
What's missing, however, is a strong electric rock-guitar presence. I'd gladly trade the synthesized violin and other atypical rock elements for someone who could do a half decent Jimmy Page imitation.
The set list was intriguing enough. Yet, the fact that he ignored so many of his solo hits was quite telling. We got a decent version of "In the Mood," but no "Big Log," "Other Arms," "Heaven Knows" or "Tall Cool One." I guess even an Americana makeover wouldn't transform those '80s hits into something we'd want to hear in 2013.
He also played a handful of covers. I wasn't impressed with the weird take on the Willie Dixon blues standard "Spoonful" (first recorded by Howlin' Wolf in 1960). It started off OK, but lost focus and steam during the jammed-out psychedelic ending. He had better luck during the encore with the traditional tune "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," which is perhaps best known -- if it's known at all -- by the Uncle Tupelo version.
Plant closed the show on a definite high note, leading his band through a fairly straight-ahead take on the Led Zep classic "Rock and Roll."
And that seemed to be exactly what the fans wanted.
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